What does sustainability mean to you? For some people, it might mean saving entire rainforests and combating fossil fuels. But for most, it starts at home with things like eating less meat or remembering to turn off the faucet.
You can’t do everything, but everyone can certainly do something. To help you on your mission to reduce your carbon footprint and possibly save the turtles while you’re at it, here’s a list of practical, undaunting ways to be more sustainable in your everyday life.
Remember the three R’s learned in elementary school — reduce, reuse, recycle? All three are the basics of living a sustainable life and they aren’t that complicated to follow. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recycling reduces the amount of waste that’s sent to landfills and incinerators and conserves natural resources such as timber, water and minerals. The EPA also stresses that recycling increases economic security by prioritizing domestic sources for materials and helps create jobs in the recycling and manufacturing industries. Need more reasons? It also saves energy and prevents pollution.
The EPA says on average, a family of four uses 400 gallons of water every day in the United States. An easy way to save water during something you do every single day is turning the faucet off while you brush. According to the EPA’s calculations, if you turn off the tap while you brush your teeth in the morning and before bedtime, you can save up to 8 gallons of water, which adds up to more than 200 gallons a month. The same goes for washing the dishes — throw the scraps away in the trash, wipe the plate with a wet napkin and put it into the dishwasher.
This is likely one of the biggest energy-wasting culprits. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, incandescent lights, in particular, should be turned off whenever they’re not being used because they are the least efficient type of lighting as 90% of the energy they use is given off as heat.
Instead of using single-use plastic water bottles, buy a reusable one. In a recent analysis by Penn State, researchers discovered that Americans spend over $11 billion annually on bottled water. Not only will reducing plastic bottles help you save money, but it will also contribute to saving the environment. According to the Container Recycling Institute, more than 60 million plastic bottles end up in landfills and incinerators every day and the EPA’s records indicate that the country’s landfills received 26.8 million tons of plastic in 2017.
Purchasing products that are fair trade certified, like coffee beans, tea, chocolate and even clothing items, encourages environmentally friendly production methods and ethical working conditions for laborers and farmers. Look for the “Fair Trade Certified™” label on products you regularly buy, because if you need a bag of coffee anyway, it’s a great opportunity to promote sustainability at the same time.
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A quick, no-brainer way to save some energy is by getting a programmable thermostat that automatically adjusts the temperature of your home when you’re out. According to the U.S Department of Energy, you can save as much as 10% a year on heating and cooling by simply turning your thermostat back 7 to 10 degrees for eight hours a day from its normal setting.
Likewise, changing your light bulbs to LED can help you be more sustainable and save money while you’re at it. Quality LED light bulbs use 75% less energy and last 25 times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Your ability to use public transportation undoubtedly depends on where you live, how far your commute is and the costs of taking the train or bus. But even if you don’t cram into public transportation daily, try walking to your destination if it’s close enough. Public transportation plays an important role in dealing with environmental challenges. According to the Federal Transit Administration, transportation accounts for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. When greenhouse gas increases in the air, the atmosphere holds more heat, which is a driving force of climate change.
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According to the Center for Biological Diversity, it takes nearly 500 years for one plastic bag to degrade in a landfill. And the bags don't even break down completely. Instead, they photo-degrade and become microplastics that absorb toxins and contribute to environmental pollution. The organization also notes that Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year, which requires 12 million barrels of oil to make. Ditch plastic for good and use a reusable shopping bag — they're also super versatile and make great travel companions.
Beyond just reducing the damage you’re doing to the environment, you can also work to correct the damage that’s already been done. Houseplants add a touch of natural greenery to any living space, but they can also purify the air of your home. In a decades-ago detailed report on using indoor plants to combat air pollution, NASA researchers determined that certain houseplants can remove the most common pollutants: benzene, xylene, trichloroethylene and formaldehyde. A few NASA-approved plants to decorate your place with include Chinese evergreen, peace lily, dracaena, Madagascar dragon tree and a fern.
Eating local, especially produce, means that you are cutting down on all the fossil fuels it took to get that banana from South America to your front door in the middle of October. Choosing things that are local and in-season cuts down on a lot of wasteful transportation emissions. Vegetable and berry specialist Vern Grubinger from the University of Vermont says buying from farmers markets not only ensures you get the freshest fruits and vegetables, but it also helps farm families stay on the land. Well-managed farms help our ecosystem as well by conserving fertile soil, protecting water sources and helping to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Having stacks of unopened mail and bills is frustrating as it is, so to help out the environment while contributing to less clutter — go paperless. Spend a few moments logging into each of your accounts and opting out of physical mail and receiving electronic statements.
Skipping the straws at Starbucks may not seem like a huge deal, but over time it can have a big impact. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year — and scientists believe that's the weight of almost 90 aircrafts. Plastic in the ocean is becoming a detriment for marine ecosystems, including sea turtles. The Sea Turtle Conservancy says 80% of plastic debris (especially plastic straws) in the ocean comes from human use on land. In 2015, a group of researchers off the coast of Costa Rica came across a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck inside its nasal cavity. The conservancy notes that straws and stirrers are considered a “gateway plastic” and once a person stops using single-use straws, they may be more willing to stop using plastic bottles and food wrappers as well. In place of plastic, purchase washable metal straws for under $12.
If you have a heap of clothing you no longer wear, don’t keep stuffing it back inside your closet and certainly don’t throw it away. Here’s where the other two R’s come into play: reduce and reuse. Set aside some reorganization time and take all the clothing items you don’t need and donate them to an organization that accepts textiles. Goodwill, for example, accepts clothing donations in any condition, except wet or contaminated with hazardous materials, so they can be reused or recycled into new products.
Reducing red meat consumption, even if it's a couple days a week, can have a significant impact on reducing our carbon footprint. According to a study in the journal Climate Change, the livestock sector (which raises cows, pigs and chickens) generates as much greenhouse gas emissions as cars, trucks and other vehicles combined. And cattle ranchers have deforested millions of acres of land to support their growing demand of consumers. Not only is cutting down on meat good for the environment over time, but it is also key in helping you live a healthier life. Red meat is one of the foods that could be putting your blood pressure through the roof.
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